housing

Tenants Sue for Repairs at Embattled East Side Public Housing Complexes

Tenant organizer La Keesha Taylor speaks outside the Holmes Tower in Yorkville, on Dec. 4, 2019.
Tenant organizer La Keesha Taylor speaks outside the Holmes Tower in Yorkville, on Dec. 4, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Tenants who helped derail development at two aging Yorkville public housing complexes are suing to demand decent living conditions — as the city Housing Authority considers a new way to raise money for repairs.

Dozens of residents of Holmes Towers and the Stanley M. Isaacs Houses plan to file petitions Friday in Manhattan Housing Court, calling on NYCHA to eradicate pests, fix faulty heat and hot water systems.

The suit from the Holmes-Isaacs Coalition aims to “correct years of NYCHA’s neglect,” a draft of the petition says — by tackling woes that include leaks, mold and broken elevators.

Tenants, who are working with attorneys from TakeRoot Justice, also want NYCHA to address botched fixes they say make conditions worse.

In La Keesha Taylor’s apartment at Holmes, workers installing new cabinets left a gap in her wall that let in roaches, she contends.

“They use the same horrible vendors time and time again that do horrible jobs,” she said.

Taylor also pointed to issues with the heat, which, she says, either is not working or blasting so hard her 5-year-old son wakes up with nosebleeds.

“This is what we suffer with every single day,” she said.

The authority estimated in 2017 the two complexes needed a combined $100 million in immediate repairs.

Residents roundly rejected NYCHA’s big plan, first floated four years ago, to jump-start renovations through private development. In its last iteration, the proposal for a half-luxury, half-affordable 50-story tower from Fetner Properties promised to raise $25 million for repairs.

The authority shelved those plans in the face of stiff opposition, THE CITY reported in June, and officially scrapped them in October. Last week, a judge declared moot a related lawsuit from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

But the tenant activism galvanized by the anti-Fetner battle lives on in the new lawsuits.

“We’ve been at this for a long time and, you know, we’ve been pushed aside,” said tenant Saundrea Coleman, a retired member of the NYPD who lived in Holmes for 23 years and now lives at Isaacs. “Basically, enough is enough. It’s time to continue this fight.”

Selling New York Air

Enter NYCHA Chair Greg Russ, who has just begun his fifth month on the job after being appointed with the approval of federal prosecutors who sued NYCHA and the city to force system-wide repairs and a management overhaul.

Consistent with the NYCHA 2.0 10-year recovery plan Mayor Bill de Blasio put forth last year, Russ has raised the idea of generating funds by selling real estate development rights to developers looking to build nearby.

In Brooklyn, a first-of-its kind air rights deal at the Ingersoll Houses in Fort Greene is slated to bring in $25 million for the authority.

At a housing conference last week, Russ told THE CITY he isn’t ruling out making an air rights deal at Holmes Towers. He indicated the site could still raise much-needed cash for the authority.

Tenant organizers La Keesha Taylor, left, Jose Guevara, and Saundrea Coleman. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“There’s value there,” he said of the complex, located between East 92nd and 95th streets adjacent to the East River and First Avenue.

“It’s most likely that there won’t be deals where that’s the only thing we’re doing, but it’s one of the things we’re doing,” he added.

There’s no way to tell how much money an air rights deal may bring in, because “the structure of those transfers is very market-defined,” Russ said.

A 2017 outside review found the authority would need $32 billion in investment over five years. At the conference, Russ said that number now approaches $42 billion.

Citywide Implications

Attorneys at TakeRoot Justice say the ideal outcome of the Housing Court suits is a court order forcing NYCHA to fix up the complexes — similar to the result of a 2013 case at the Smith Houses in the Lower East Side. There, NYCHA was forced to dispatch workers to address a backlog of repairs after a judge sided with tenants.

Barbara Brancaccio, a NYCHA spokesperson, did not comment on the pending suit, saying only, “We haven’t been served with a complaint.”

Coleman said the legal fight is particularly important as the city considers financial deals and development projects at NYCHA sites across the city. That includes the Fulton Houses in Chelsea, where the city is mulling a controversial plan to raze and rebuild two public housing buildings.

“It’s not just about us,” she said. “The problems that happen at Holmes happen all throughout NYCHA.”

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